By Michael Spinner

During the next two years, women's lacrosse will take on a new look, literally. By the 2005 season women's lacrosse teams at every level will be forced to wear eye protection of some form or another due to the 2005 mandate by the US Lacrosse Women's Division Board of Governors and ASTM lacrosse standards. Advocates for eyewear call this a victory that will assure long-term protection for young athletes in a sport that has participation rates exploding across the board. Opponents are saying that the eyewear changes little or nothing because it is not a necessary piece of equipment to begin with.

We won't really know what this change will mean to the sport until we know if this rule represents a new direction for women's lacrosse. Is eye-protection a one-time addition to the rules? Did specific studies prove that THIS rule change was absolutely necessary? Or, is this the first of many paranoia driven additions of gear to the women's game? Until we know the answer we won't know what such a change is going to ultimately mean.

This is a difficult rule change for those who actually work on lacrosse fields to advocate, for the simple reason that there has not been a wide-spread call for such a change to the rules. Eye-protection has, since its development, always been optional for all players and yet only a handful of players have ever worn them. Only in certain states like New York was eyewear mandatory among the High School ranks until now. But among coaching ranks, particularly at the College level, there just has not been a broad movement to make such protection mandatory.

Having never played women's lacrosse myself (duh!), I have no first-hand experience to draw upon for my argument against this rule change, but I have watched enough women's lacrosse to make some observations. In five years of coaching girl's and women's lacrosse, I have observed the following regarding any debate over mandatory eyewear:
  • Only twice have I observed a serious eye injury (i.e. required medical attention) that could have been prevented by mandating goggles or eye-protection. Both happened when a ball struck a girl on the eye-one by a shot during a game, one by a pass during practice. Neither injured athlete had any long-term problems as a result of the injury and both returned to play a short time later.

  • I can not begin to list how many times I have seen a girl struck on the head by a stick with such force that the injury required the athlete to come out of the game. Never do I recall a situation where eyewear would have prevented such an injury because the strike came to the head itself, not the eye area.

  • Injuries to the nose and mouth are even more commonplace than head injuries. Although mouth-guards are mandatory and do a good job preventing injuries to the teeth, swollen lips, bloody and/or broken noses happen everywhere at every level and there is no way that eye-goggles will help prevent them.

  • Obviously nobody brought up injuries to hands and fingers as part of the process for determining whether or not mandatory eyewear should be instituted, but I have seen far more injuries to hands and fingers than eye injuries. It's to the point where you can not compare.

  • Will mandatory eyewear encourage more aggressive checking? My opinion is an absolute "yes". In fact, I distinctly recall one game a few years ago where a young lady from an opposing team wore a hockey-style helmet because of a prior head injury and actually led with her head when she would dodge with the hopes of drawing a check to the head and a foul. A season ago, I coached against a team where it was a coaching strategy for any time a check near the head would mean a girl on that team would grab her head as if she were hit, thus drawing a foul. This "acting" was a hot topic among coaching circles in the area where I coached and can be more commonplace if eyewear leads to more checking.
The best argument for eye protection is that any type of injury to the eye has the potential to be permanent and one can not replace their eye. That argument has no rebuttal, but at the same time, it does not address the reality of escalation. The permanence of an eye injury can be every bit as severe as the permanence of a head or neck injury and I think a head or neck injury is many times more likely in women's lacrosse than an eye injury. Anybody who has ever suffered a concussion will tell you that you are never the same afterwards-I can personally attest to that. But, to date, there has been no major movement to mandate helmets in women's lacrosse.

Mandatory eyewear might not be a bad idea, but it is a change to women's lacrosse that seems less necessary and impacting than other initiatives which might achieve the same safety goals. Ensuring consistency of officiating and quality of youth coaching would go far in achieving all of the sport's safety goals without adding a thing. While achieving this would be much more difficult, it could ultimately cause the game no harm. But mandatory eyewear just might be a bad idea. If the use of eyewear leads to more aggressive checking to the head area and more checking causes more concussions, are we making women's lacrosse a safer sport? We may have taken a step to rid women's lacrosse of the not-so-common eye injuries forever. Even that is not yet a proven fact. But if the trade-off is a rise in incidents of concussions, broken noses, hands or fingers, and injuries to the mouth, who are we really helping?

And again, is the implementation of eyewear just the proverbial "step one"? Are we now on a one-way path of escalation in women's lacrosse? In other words, "what's next"? It would seem to me that there is always going to be a person to suggest that women's lacrosse does not have enough protection. If that person is loud enough, are helmets and padded gloves on the horizon now that one piece of protective equipment has been added? After all, adding protective is an easy step that could always be justified in the name of safety. Removing safety equipment once it's been introduced, however, is nearly impossible in our over-litigious world. In that case, haven't we, rather nonchalantly, introduced a "viral" change in women's lacrosse that will make it completely different forever?

My questions are not so very far-fetched because in our society of litigants, nobody wants to be put in a position where they are vulnerable to lawsuit…which is where I think this new rule partially stems from. The powers-that-be may prevent litigation for this specific injury with this remedy. But in a sport like women's lacrosse where sticks are swinging and there is little protection, in fact, they may have created the legal grounds for complaints of greater validity. Isn't the attention paid to a lesser occurring injury with the implementation of a protective device as a remedy an invitation for litigation from those suffering from the more common injuries for which no protection was mandated? Before the eyewear mandate, the responsibility for a safely played game was shared between the players, referees and coaches. The risk belonged entirely to the player, who understood that. Now that someone has stepped up to add the first piece of mandatory protective equipment in a game that has had none for over 100 years, that same group and others will now be deemed liable for making or not making similar decisions regarding all potential risks to the players. After a few successful law suits on these grounds the women will be wearing the same gear as the men and that's a shame.

If the soccer community is willing to allow games to be played with no protection from the chin-up when the head and forehead are actually used during games, women's lacrosse should follow suit. After all, without any empirical evidence to support my claim, I would think that an eye injury is more likely in soccer than women's lacrosse since the cranium could be listed as a piece of soccer equipment…not the case in women's lacrosse.

So, who benefits and who loses by mandating eyewear in women's lacrosse. Let's take a look:
  • The Athletes: A draw. With respect to eye safety, the athletes win because a permanent eye injury is far less likely with goggles on than without. However, the aforementioned rise in other injuries could mute this point and end up making the new rule counterproductive. Furthermore, the athletes are hurt because no form of eyewear makes it as easy to see then not having eyewear at all. The older model goggles tend to fog up when moisture exists by sweat or rain, causing the sight-line to be hindered…something that could cause more facial or head injuries. The newer model "Iris" goggles are open with bars similar to a men's face-mask, but the bars cause the sight-line to be hindered. Ultimately, the athletes gain something but lose something as well.

  • The Coaches: Depends on the level of play. At the college level, the new rule probably does not have much of an effect except maybe a couple big-time coaches will get new team eyewear endorsement contracts like the men do with helmets. But at lower level, it can certainly have repercussions. One of the biggest problems facing women's lacrosse at the lower levels is a lack of proper coaching and there are very few areas that are not "starved" for coaches who truly understand the game. Having spent the last two seasons coaching at the High School level, I can not begin to tell you how many times I have seen teams who simply hacked away without any knowledge of technique because the athletes are not being taught properly. Properly coaching the checking technique at the youth and High School level can lead to a game that is both aggressive and physical but also completely safe. If mandatory eyewear leads to more checking, the coaches lose because checking technique is completely underscored at lower levels nationwide.

  • Officials: If a lack of proper coaching is a storm that hurts women's lacrosse, the lack of good officiating across the board is the proverbial hurricane. Women's lacrosse is one of the most difficult sports to officiate because there are a slew of rules open to interpretation and there are so many rules off the ball that officials must see everything at one time. I would referee a men's lacrosse game and I have before at lower levels and camps. I would never dream of officiating a women's game at any level. And my sentiment seems to be common-place because there the lack of good officiating and often any officiating in women's lacrosse is downright scary. I cannot begin to discuss the number of times I have seen college-rated women's lacrosse officials who are not adequate officiating High School games. If mandatory eyewear leads to more checking and the officials are called upon more often, this is a loss for the officials because there are not enough out there capable of calling this change sufficiently. If women's lacrosse advocates truly want to have a safer sport, they should take on the task of ensuring proper coaching at the lower level and consistent officiating at all levels.

  • Administrators: Athletics administrators win if mandatory eyewear lowers the risk of a lawsuit and lose if it ultimately opens the floodgates. The initial cost to the administrator is about 30-50 bucks per player. But if the women are geared up like the men in five years it may cost much more and even break some programs. On the other hand, that extra cost would help even up some title IX applicable expenses.

  • Equipment Manufacturers: In the debate over adding any type of equipment to women's lacrosse, the equipment manufacturers are the "champions of the world." More than any other sport in the world, lacrosse is dominated by equipment manufacturers and in no other sport do we see the game changed by the equipment manufacturer as much as it is here. Again-no evidence to support my claim, but this entire situation smells of influence by equipment manufacturers. Women's lacrosse has traditionally been known as a "cheap" sport because a school can outfit a women's team with sticks, balls, goals, goalie equipment, and uniforms and can be all set to field a team. Part of the reason why so many colleges have added women's lacrosse to their athletics offerings is because it is relatively cheap to add. The sentiment is that the "Iris" goggles are the eyewear of choice among coaches and at $40-$50 apiece, somebody is about to get richer and some of them are our sponsors. And when competition begins to develop the more effective, lighter, and better looking goggles, we'll see more expensive offerings down the road. In other words, women's lacrosse just became more profitable to many people. This was a major reason why there was a push for this rule change or at least no opposition by manufacturers. The competition between the men's lacrosse helmet manufacturers and others just expanded to the women's game. The biggest winners here are definitely the equipment manufacturers and retailers.

The bottom line here is that a change has been made to the sport before it has been established that the change is necessary and before we really understand the long-term ramifications of making such a change. Yes-2004 is an optional year where use of eyewear is "strongly recommended" but the wording of the new rule does not leave the possibility of it being revoked. Some Division I coaches we spoke to are pretty sure the NCAA will, in fact, mandate the protective gear in 2004 and just get it over with. And with the amount of money schools will have to invest in the initial eyewear, there is no way the rule will be overturned. However, can we really say that women's lacrosse is safer now? Can we suggest that the sport will be improved by mandating eyewear? Is this something we will look back at in a favorable fashion (no pun intended)? I think the answer to all of these questions is no. Welcome to the NEW game of women's lacrosse.

E-Lacrosse.com columnist Michael Spinner is the Head Women's Lacrosse Coach at the College of Mount Saint Vincent-a program that will begin play in 2004 and use eyewear as proscribed by the new rule. Spinner has been coaching women's lacrosse since the 1999 season.

June 10, 2003

Photos by Joe Rogate, Lee Weismann, Bob Ogrudek, and TD Paulius.

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